Photo by Sam Barnes/Web Summit via Sportsfile. CC BY 2.0

Wes Dodson | University of Texas at Austin

A futuristic Lexus glides across the screen and a sultry voice whispers “the road you’re on John Anderton, is the one less traveled,” correctly identifying Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report. This is the sleek sexy image of personal advertising based on the cutting edge science of “psychographics” that Alexander Nix of Cambridge Analytica sold Republican donor Robert Mercer and strategist Steve Bannon on in 2013.

Most reporting suggests, however, that the firm actually delivered something more like “Hello Mr. Yakimoto, welcome back to the GAP! How’d those assorted tank tops work out?”, but without the grace lent to the ad system in Minority Report by Tom Cruise’ identity swap tradecraft. Most Republican operators in 2016 saw the firm as a nuisance that came along with tapping into the Mercer coffers. Brad Pascale, Trump’s head data analyst, found the RNC’s data set superior and used Cambridge Analytica largely to conduct standard polling and advise on Trump’s travel schedule.

The Cambridge Analytica story has simmered in the background since 2013, but was brought to boil by Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer, whose account focused on the psychological techniques used by the firm. The article repeatedly references the “military strategies” used by Cambridge Analytica (as though the United States’ psychological “hearts and minds” campaign is going swimmingly) and describes the tool of psychographics as one of “psychological warfare.”

Initial coverage of the story by U.S. media outlets was largely informed by Cadwalladr’s portrayal and focused on whether the Trump campaign used Cambridge Analytica to “manipulate American voters,” as asserted by Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott in Time. Their article suggests that the power of these ads is their ability to “make you very emotional.”

Cooler heads eventually prevailed and revealed the very limited role Cambridge Analytica played in Trump’s 2016 campaign. The initial coverage, however, reveals a common error in attributing shadowy organizations and governments with the ability to manipulate minds: a misunderstanding of how emotions are created.

Highly demonstrative of this point is the phrasing of Ghosh and Scott’s article, these advertisements “make you very emotional” (italics mine). They go even further to denote the specific emotions, “elated, excited, sad or angry,” that these advertisements force the viewer to feel. The underlying assumption in this argument is that emotions are uncontrollable reactions to stimuli that are not informed by a kind of consciously, and rationally, formed thought. Science disagrees.

NPR’s Invisibilia podcast recently explored the creation of emotions in a two-part series that relied heavily on research done by Northeastern University professor, Lisa Feldman Barrett. Barrett’s research, as described in her book How Emotions are Made, explores the relationship between emotions and concepts, and the author asserts that concepts we have about the world actually create our emotional reaction to the world.

Barrett’s paradigmatic example of this interplay is the “gross food” birthday party she threw for her daughter and some of her friends. By staging completely normal food in situations thought to typically be unpleasant, such as “white grape juice in urine cups,” Barrett was able to elicit strong emotional reactions from the kids, who, she remarks, were all too happy to participate. Readers who have participated in the Halloween favorite of placing slimy, but harmless, objects in opaque jars marked “eyes” or “brains”, are familiar with the concept.

Barrett’s example shows how the concepts we have can change our emotional reaction to the world. The same stimulus, the taste of white grape juice, presented in situations that are typically associated with the concept of unsanitariness or unpleasantness can actually change how the initial stimulus is perceived.

The kids gagging at the taste of grape juice do not seem to be particularly in control of their emotional reactions. How, then, does this example refute the notion that emotions are uncontrollable reactions to external stimuli?

Consider instead, the adults at the party. With the added concept of deceit, knowing something can seem one way and actually be another, and the previous experience of similar situations, the adults are able to control their emotional reaction to the same stimuli as the children, and likely recall it as a pleasant experience where they got to tease their kids a bit. The children are even to some extent displaying a similar conceptual awareness of deceit by agreeing to play along, likely with the corollary concept that their parents would never knowingly endanger them.

In her interview with NPR, Barrett also introduces the idea of interoception, your mind’s awareness of the sensations it receives from within the body. She also notes that interoception is significantly less accurate than your actual visual awareness. An aching in your stomach is not a very versatile sensation, and thus your brain uses the concepts that are associated with the stimulus that it is receiving from without to create an emotional reaction.  Barrett uses the difference between a stomachache when your lover walks past, experienced as longing, and when cramming for a test, experienced as anxiety, to illustrate this dynamic.

If our concepts about the world create and control our emotions, then haven’t we just moved one step up the ladder of psychological warfare, can’t we just now say “your concepts control you, and Cambridge Analytica used your concepts to wage psychological warfare on behalf of Trump?” No, because concepts are susceptible to change by new evidence that makes them more accurate, which is the assumption that underpins democratic discourse.

Concepts are not fixed. We don’t learn the concept of politics in 5th grade government class and then stick with that throughout our lives. New evidence shapes and informs our concept of politics, and new arguments about how to more accurately understand previously seen evidence do as well.

The root of this misunderstanding likely lies in the ubiquity of certain emotional reactions to specific stimuli. Pretty much everyone feels anxious at the results of college admissions. We associate the concept of college admissions with the concept future success, and insecurity about future outcomes is the definition of anxiety. This ubiquitous reaction is, however, because the evidence is compelling that college admission is highly associated with future success, not because college admission has some inherent physiological effect that knots our stomachs. We misinterpret the ubiquity of emotional reactions to certain stimuli as some inherent ability of that stimuli to emotionally affect us.

Republicans are not made angry by immigration per se. There is no intrinsic emotional response to the image of silhouetted figures climbing a wall with the dramatic text “there’s more than one kind of national security leak. #LawAndBorder”. Some Americans have associated a spate of ill effects with the concept of illegal immigration, and thus are “made” angry when they see it on an advertisement.

Nothing, however, is stopping other individuals from presenting new evidence or a new argument about old evidence to change their concept of immigration, and consequently their emotional reaction to it. This was true of the people who influenced me and is why I see the same advertisement, smile, and think: I cannot wait to have another potential citizen who will be a boon to our economy and will lower average crime rates.